Sean O'Keefe's Senate confirmation hearing on December 7 to be
the new NASA Administrator went fairly well. Commerce
Committee Democrats and Republicans announced their support for
the nominee, called for a swift Senate confirmation vote, and
pressed O'Keefe to move quickly to the space agency. When he
gets there, judging from the questions and answers raised at
this hearing, O'Keefe will face significant problems.
Subcommittee chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) described O'Keefe as a
"tough fiscal watchdog" who will face difficult choices in
Wyden called a "horrendously mismanaged" space station program.
Alluding to a large funding shortfall in the station program,
Wyden warned that there "will not be a massive infusion of
funds" to NASA during O'Keefe's tenure. In his opening
remarks, Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said that the program
seemed to be "bleeding billions," and added that Congress
make a conscious decision about the space station. Kay Bailey
Hutchison (R-TX) was guarded in her opening remarks, telling
O'Keefe that "I want you to show more than an OMB mentality"
managing the agency, calling the three-person "core complete"
station configuration a red flag. Trent Lott (R-MS) had
similar concerns about O'Keefe's management approach to NASA,
saying "I hope you don't plan to just phase it down or close it
down." Bill Nelson (D-FL) echoed Hutchinson's sentiments.
In opening testimony, O'Keefe said "my qualifications are that
of a public administrator." NASA's challenges are of a
financial, management, and personnel nature, not scientific.
Capitalizing and reinvigorating NASA are his goals. OMB's
focus is measurement, and O'Keefe's later testimony reflected
that. Success in Washington is too often defined as increasing
budgets, he said. "In my mind that tells you nothing," O'Keefe
exclaimed, saying that performance and outcomes: "are [what we
are] going to be about at NASA."
Wyden's first question was pointed: "how long will it take to
drain the swamp at NASA?" O"Keefe replied that a financial
assessment was underway, whose results should be known within a few
months. When asked how he would define his scientific vision for the
agency, O'Keefe responded that by early next year he would enlist the
assistance of the scientists from the ISS Management and Cost Evaluation
Task Force (see FYI
#135) and the directors of the ten NASA centers. Several times during
the hearing O'Keefe called for NASA to return to its traditional mission,
saying "let's get back to basics" and perform research that
no one else does. O'Keefe seeks to reinvigorate the entrepreneurial
spirit that characterized project management in NASA's formative stage.
Nelson and Hutchison questioned O'Keefe closely about the Task
Force's recommendations for reduced shuttle flights and a
smaller station. Hutchison wanted to know if O'Keefe felt that
a three-person crew would be the final outcome for the station.
O'Keefe did not respond directly, saying that after management
was reformed and the basics completed that a decision would
then be made. Hutchison protested that with only a three-
person crew the program could lose sight of science and
research. O'Keefe replied that "worries me more than anything
else . . . that is an unacceptable condition." Hutchison told
O'Keefe that if he enhanced the science output he would be her
hero, if not, "I will be all over you."
Three themes were prominent in this hearing. Senators are unhappy about
the management of the space station, and extremely wary about the science
implications of a three-person crew. O'Keefe's skills are, as he stated
at the outset of the hearing, "that of a public administrator,"
and he intends to capitalize on those skills. O'Keefe' management approach
is clear: "Everything has got to get back to basics."